Saturday, April 10, 2010

Complexity…ah, complexity!

Complexity! Everyone is talking about it! The Archdruid has a typical long post where he champions the human versus the machine, John Robb over at Global Guerrillas talks about his resilient communities growing at the margins, Ran Prieur gathers it all up talking about the computers and cars in his life, and Anne at Tagonist weighs in on social versus technical complexity. And Stuart Staniford gets stuck into the Archdruid in his post with an argument which I can't quite follow.

I'll tackle the Tagonist bit first: Anne talks about reliable, simple machines versus complicated ones. Her examples (not good ones!) are the Kohler engine in her old Gravely garden tractor and an Italian scooter she's trying to fix for a friend. At one level this is a simple argument to scotch: if you live near a Kohler dealer you're OK, but it's a long way to Italy from Ohio (plus the imperial/metric problems of part substitution). And then again, I'm sure there aren't too many well-maintained Gravelys in Italia, but you'd have no worries over there finding a throttle cable at the local tip/wreckers which would fit your scooter.

So…but it gets more complicated. You can make parts to keep even complicated machines going if you've got the time and understanding to do so. And there is the problem of choosing between a local unreliable machine and an imported reliable one (both second-hand in the case I'm about to describe). We just bought a second-hand Korean Daewoo Matiz to replace the big locally-made second-hand Ford wagon which we've had for a year or so. We didn't need the Ford's big size and what tipped us against it was a series of problems with timing and unreliability running on LPG. It seemed every month we had another issue with it. And it was the sort of problem I couldn't fix myself — lots of electronic sensors and hard-to-get-at bits. The Matiz we got because we had one before and we had a few issues with it too, but we drove it from new until we wore it out at 290,000km. We know the gearbox selectors in the Matiz we just got will go in 150,000km or so, but that's seven years away for us. And we could fix 'em, if the rest of the vehicle's condition makes it worthwhile.

Then there's Anne's social complexity argument. What to do with all the editors and other specialists when the means for plugging them into the system goes pear-shaped? Well yes indeed, but this is mainly a problem when we work for highly specialised organisations in a very big system. I'll bet there'll be an editor at my local town paper, the "Mirror", until the Earth stops rotating.

It's not so much a problem of complexity as a problem of scale. When the Soviet Union collapsed it was the size of the social entities involved that made the problems, not their complexity. If your town or city depends on a single specialised industry to keep it going you are vulnerable in a way in which a big, complex city like say Melbourne is not, with it's multiple industries and functions, and its powerful political elite which command the resources of the surrounding state almost totally. Melbourne may well shrink a little when things get tough, but I doubt very much if it will disappear. It has too many reasons for being and not enough dire threats to its existence. Contrast with say Detroit, which existed because it was built for a purpose, to build cars. The cars go and Detroit goes.

Again, most European cities are near a border of some other country, or near enough to another city for friction over resources to develop. The intervening countryside is rich enough to support a reasonably self-sufficient peasantry and so an army can easily traverse the space between cities. This makes collapse, with its attendant scrabble for power and resources, a much more dangerous affair. Contrast with Australia which is has a resource-poor, sparsely settled countryside with very great distances between the big cities. Each major city commands the state of which it is capital. The major issue for each large city is lack of water, and only Adelaide, the fifth-largest city, is hostage to three other, larger states (Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland) for access to water.

We will indeed have a considerable level of discomfort here over the next few generations but it will not be Mad Max. There will be conflict within cities between the priviledged centre and the poverty-stricken edges, but the centre will always win. There will be border-protection issues in Queensland, the Northern Territory and the north of Western Australia. The Northern Territory, the most artificial and highly subsidised state, may well collapse or be absorbed into some other island based empire coming from the break-up of Indonesia some time in the next century, especially if climate change renders the interior of the continent uninhabitable and makes Darwin, its capital, even more difficult to live in. I can see Australia breaking up either de jure or de facto into separate city states in the next century.

I'll talk about the others' essays in another post!

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